Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Music: Two Cardinals in Autumn - Anita O'Day and Lena Horne

In my recent Blog, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, and the Legacy of Americana, I wrote of the fading Americana represented by the recent deaths of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash and the dwindling talent from the Golden Age of Popular Music (1955 -1975). How easily one can ignore singers popular well before 1955 and who are still living and recording and representing a greater length and change of Americana with time. Two perfect examples are releasing recordings within months of one another. Anita O’Day (1919- ) and Lena Horne (1917- ) both have recent recordings worthy of comparison and contrast of how advocates, promoters, and record company’s cast their aging protagonists with respect to sonic, production, and repertoire concerns and what these releases mean culturally.

Americana has two pertinent definitions: 1. materials relating to American history, folklore, or geography or considered to be typical of American culture and, the shorter, 2. the culture of America (, 2006). A general way of understanding culture is to divide it into three elements: Values, Norms, and Artifacts.

Of interest in this discussion are cultural artifacts — things, or material culture — that derive from a culture's values [aesthetic and non-aesthetic] and norms [formal and colloquial] (, 2006). The art of Miss O’Day and Miss Horne, jazz vocals, might be considered artifactual as it represents material culture, but this is to consider their art in a flat, horizontal manner. Add the dimension of time to the discussion and one has the truly artifactual [Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959) and Stormy Weather (1943)], and, in the case of these two artists, new recordings, not artifactual, but contemporary.

Anita O’Day
Kayo Records

Old School

I have already addressed the biography and cultural significance of Anita O’Day in my recent extended analysis of Indestructible at All About Jazz. Here, I want to address this recording, independently produced, with Seasons of a Life by Lena Horne, released on Blue Note records.

Indestructible finds Miss O’Day recording with a couple of notable peers not the least of who are trumpeter Joe Wilder (1922- ), trombonist Roswell Rudd (1935- ). The remainder of the performers could be children and grandchildren of these three, but there exists no generational divide. These musicians came together and produced a recording of naked honesty. Joe Wilder did not worry about squeaks and flubbed notes, he just played. The same was true of Rudd, who’s normally free-style trombone is reigned in for this collection of standards.

Miss O’Day sings with the same approach and conviction she has for all of her life. However, as a warning for the uninitiated or very particular, this is not the Anita O’Day of Jazz on a Summer’s Day. This is Anita O’Day captured with no pretense or contrivance. Touching and thoughtful, Miss O’Day approaches twilight with all she has. Miss O’Day and her co-producers assembled a crack band and recorded Indestructible old style. The group used a studio that records to analogue tape using vintage tube microphones. The producers felt this was essential to capture the sound that made the great jazz records great (recording live), rather than trying to reproduce the vintage sound digitally. The absence of production tricks is very obvious on this recording, lending to the disc’s authentic feel. Indestructible was recorded between February 2004 and November 2006, and was mixed and mastered soon after Miss O’Day’s 86th birthday. The result is pure, unadorned swing.

Miss O’Day opens and closes the disc with Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” and closes the disc with Hoagie Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You.” Encompassed in these two songs is a lifetime of hope, pain, joy, let-down, and acceptance. Honor Anita O’Day for her longevity and potent contribution to Americana.

Lena Horne
Seasons of a Life
Blue Note Records

New School

Fellow octogenarian Lena Horne displays incredible staying power also on her new recording, Seasons of a Life. She also illustrates what new school digital recording techniques can do to airbrush imperfections from vocal tracks, not necessarily meaning that Miss Horne needed a good deal of touch up. The voice is deeper than that singing in Stormy Weather (1943), but remains strong and vibrant, with near perfect intonation and pitch-perfect key.

The advance copy I received had little information regarding Miss Horne’s accompaniment with the exception that it was produced by her longtime guitarist Rodney Jones, who also lends his musical wares to the recording. While being released in 2006, Seasons of a Life was recorded between 1994 and 2001. The disc is comprised of outtakes and rarities from her three Blue Note sessions: We'll Be Together Again (1994), An Evening with Lena Horne (1995) and Being Myself (1998). Additionally, are outtakes from1998's original soundtrack recording of Lulu on the Bridge, 2000's Classic Ellington (with conductor Sir Simon Rattle and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra), and a previously unreleased session from 1995 that features pianist Herbie Hancock (listen to the stark “Willow weep for Me”).

Notable on the recording are superb presentations of Marissa Dodge’s contemporary “Black Is,” an inventive “I’ve Got to Have You” by Kris Kristofferson, and languid “Singing in the Rain” and an incendiary “Stormy Weather,” perhaps that last time we will hear the singer belt out that signature tune. Lushly arranged and well, if not overly, produced, Seasons of a Life is a fine addition to any fan’s Lena Horne collection.

On a personal note, my father, the then US Army Technical Sergeant Norman Bailey saw performances by both Anita O’Day and Lena Horn in 1944-45. At the time he was part of an anti-tank outfit awaiting orders to ship out for the Pacific Theater and the inevitable invasion of Japan, which Truman put the kibosh on early. My father said that Anita O’Day and Lena Horn “oozed sex” and were sensual, “exciting performers that turned all of the lights on.” These singers belong to what Tom Brokaw defined as “The Greatest Generation.” Their numbers dwindle and we should honor them while we can.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: Blue Skies; This Can't Be Love; Is You Is; All of Me; A Slip of the Lip; Pennies From Heaven; Gimme a Pigfoot; Them There Eyes; Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea; My Little Suede Shoes (instrumental); The Nearness of You.

Personnel: Tracks 1, 2, 4, 6, 8-11: Joe Wilder, trumpet; Tommy Morimoto, tenor sax; Lafayette Harris, Jr., piano; Chip Jackson, bass; Eddie Locke, drums. Tracks 3, 5, 7: Roswell Rudd, trombone; Steve Fishwick, trumpet; John Colianni, piano; Sean Smith, bass; Matt Fishwick, drums.

Seasons of a Life

Tracks: Black Is; Maybe; I've Got To Have You; I'll Always Leave The Door A Little Open; You're The One; Something to Live For; Chelsea Bridge; Singin' In The Rain; Willow Weep For Me; Stormy Weather.

Personnel: Lena Horne: Vocals; and a really slick and plush orchestra, unidentified; Rodney Jones: Producer, Guitar.

© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2006